For a long time I felt a sort of inferiority complex about my military service and my combat experience. Service members at war regularly compare their experiences to those of previous generations. In Iraq, I didn’t even compare myself to anyone who fought in another war. There were plenty of guys in my own platoon who might as well have been World War II or Vietnam veterans to my virgin eyes — guys who two years earlier had been part of the first wave to cross the border from Kuwait into Saddam’s Iraq and spearhead the brief conventional war without taking off their oppressive chemical suits for months. Those guys were two generations above me — their junior Marines were my direct seniors, and they had plenty of their own stories from the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). They often told the story of Corporal Jason Dunham, a Marine Corps legend from our battalion who was the first Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since Vietnam. He got it posthumously, however, because he used his body to cover an enemy grenade to save his friends’ lives. They also had stories of a three-day firefight against more than 300 insurgents, and other firefights they remembered along with the scars from gunshot wounds they showed me.
When I got to my battalion after infantry school in March 2005, we had about six months before the unit was going to deploy to Iraq for a third time. I was put in a weapons company, comprised of a few truck platoons and a sniper platoon, and we were all getting moved around within the company a lot as we prepared to go. I wanted to be one of the guys most likely to engage the enemy. I stayed in the same platoon the whole time, but I was moved from being a backseat dismount (one of the ten Marines who would leave the trucks whenever they park to form an assault team for raiding buildings and engaging the enemy on foot) to being the gunner for the rear truck, then back to being a dismount in a different truck. Then I got moved again, this time to be a driver because one of the other candidates for the position — my friend Sam — had never gotten a driver’s license so he could not drive a Humvee. Now I was really devastated and feeling inferior. I’d be stuck behind the wheel, forbidden from leaving the truck while almost everyone else would be getting out or engaging the enemy from their turrets.
In the run-up to the deployment, Sam became my closest friend in the Marines. One day in infantry school, I had firewatch in the barracks over the weekend, which kept me from going out to town in San Diego because we were not allowed to trade or sell off our watch shifts. I looked at the schedule for who’d be relieving me — it said O’Brien or something obviously Irish. Then a short Mexican guy with the name O’Brien sewed on his uniform came up to me and told me to enjoy the rest of my weekend. “You’re O’Brien?” Sam shook his head, “Nah, I’m just wearing his blouse in case any sergeants check to see if he’s here. I took his watch.” Sam did this all throughout infantry school, making something like fifty dollars an hour that he sent back home to his wife to help with their newborn daughter. We’d soon be sent not only to the same battalion in Twentynine Palms, California, but the same platoon where we’d grow on each other in training and confide our life stories and world views to each other in Iraq. We made plans to have our families meet once a year for dinner no matter where the world took us for the rest of our lives.
Our platoon never had any firefights that lasted more than fifteen minutes during that deployment, though I wasn’t trapped behind the wheel for all of them. One week every month we took our turn manning Ramadi’s northern entry control point, not the biggest magnet for attacks in that city, but one of them. I still felt inferior for some reason, even though by a couple of months in, I had been on the receiving end of lots of indirect fire, maybe a half a dozen IEDs, and some small arms fire, and I had a key role in an urgent evacuation of five Army soldiers who were severely wounded in a catastrophic IED strike. I still felt like my peers were doing more than me to fight the enemy and that I would never come close to doing what my seniors did.
I had been feeling kind of invincible, though, thinking there was no way anything serious would happen to me or my platoon. Yet, in some combination of depression and feeling like a failure, in the back of my mind, I wanted to die in combat and get it over with. Then one day, we got tasked with a mission to drive up to the edge of enemy territory in Ramadi’s volatile southeast and do some reconnaissance on an intersection we hadn’t seen in many months. I thought this might be my chance to die in combat.
After we were briefed on the mission, we still had a few hours before we would launch, and I had to do an hour of firewatch — a 24- hour rotation of walking around our parked trucks to make sure no gear would be stolen. Junior Marines were in trouble for some reason then, so we had to do double firewatch, two guys circling the trucks at all times, and I had watch with Sam. He told me it was his daughter’s first birthday — December 18, 2005 — and that his wife was probably flying with her from California to Texas to visit family. I congratulated him, but soon I noticed a friend I hadn’t spoken with in a couple months was doing firewatch for his platoon next door, so I left Sam to pace alone, and I talked with my other friend for the rest of the time. I talked with Sam every day, but I hadn’t talked with this guy in months — Sam understood. After firewatch, there were some guys wanting to watch a movie on my computer, and Sam invited me to watch Star Wars on his portable DVD player. I don’t remember what I watched with the other guys, but I thought it was more interesting, so I turned Sam down and he watched his movie alone.
As we were getting ready to go on the mission, I took off a Saint Michael pendant I wore around my neck, and I took a miniature New Testament out of my breast pocket. I was a believer only in God, not in any religion, but these items were given to me by well-meaning people, so I carried them with me on every mission until that one. Before we left, I said a brief prayer, something to the effect of, “I don’t want Your protection, and please just let me die quickly on this mission.”
On the way to our objective, we stopped so our platoon commander could talk to a shop owner for some reason, and I saw Sam dismount and hold security at a corner. I jealously looked at him from behind my steering wheel, then everyone mounted back up and we drove the rest of the way to our destination. The dismounts and half of the vehicle commanders got out and went into the tallest building to get overwatch on the intersection. The rest of us put our trucks in a security cordon around the area and kept a silent lookout, punctuated by beeps and voices over our truck’s radio.
It wasn’t long before the silence was broken by a long string of machine gun fire. Our rear truck gunner saw a man with an RPG pop around a corner and take aim at his truck, but Zach got up and fired first, and the RPG gunner ran away before he could fire. We instantly moved into action and started chasing him with two vehicles, mine in the lead and Zach’s following. We drove around for a few minutes but didn’t see him anywhere, and then we got a call to come back to the intersection because there was a casualty there. They didn’t say who, just that someone had been injured in the face. Still, I thought nothing serious could happen to our platoon, so in my mind I pictured someone running into the corner of a door or something and hurting his eye. When we got back, word came over the radio that someone was killed, and we were all shocked, wondering who, how. We formed a tight security box with our trucks to shield the guys who were going to carry him out. I saw one lifeless Marine on a stretcher with a bunched-up white cloth covering his face. I saw 40-millimeter grenade pouches on his flak jacket, and we only had one Marine with an M203 grenade launcher in our section. I wasn’t very close with him, but I knew he was a father and a husband, so I felt horrified thinking about his children and his wife.
My truck’s commander got out to help with the fallen Marine, and my gunner stood up and started yelling Arabic at someone. I looked out my window and saw an older, heavyset man walk out of an alley with a lawn chair, plant it on the street and sit down to watch us. He wasn’t listening to my gunner to leave, so I popped open my door and tried telling him to go away with my hand. He didn’t, so I raised my rifle at him, and he got up and walked away with his chair the same way he came.
Our dismounts came back and the two backseaters were in tears. “It’s Sam. They got Sam,” James cried.
“What? No!” I shouted, remembering just then that Sam was just recently given a Vietnam-era M79 grenade launcher, and that’s why he had the 40-millimeter grenade pouches on his flak.
We all just cried together as we drove away. I was thinking about his daughter, his wife, and his parents. I was thinking that I must have killed him. God was probably angry with me for my prayer, so instead of answering it, he took the person closest to me . ..on his daughter’s first birthday. We were both scarcely 20 years old and Sam would never get any older. I reached back and held my friend’s hand, crying together, and I drove with my other hand. I remember some Iraqis seeing into our truck with a look of disbelief as we slowly drove by through deep mud, seeing all of us crying together. I didn’t care. Let them see, I thought, see that we hate this as much as they do.
We got to the main Army base and delivered his body, then we stood around outside for at least an hour, crying and hugging each other before our platoon commander spoke some words in remembrance. We couldn’t have lost a better, more loved guy. Later I learned that he was on the roof of the building, running down some stairs from the top floor of the roof to a lower level when a sniper from across the street hit him right below the brim of his helmet.
After that I stopped comparing my experiences to anyone else’s. One day, maybe a couple of weeks later, I was in the bathroom of our hooch, and one of my twice-seniors, an OIF 1, 2, and now 3 vet, was waiting behind me. He was making jokes behind me, I don’t remember what specifically, just trying to make me laugh. Twice his junior, it was almost my duty to laugh, but I still wasn’t feeling well enough to find jokes funny. I finished, buttoned my pants and walked past him without more than a blank stare. Corporal Lara called me back and said, “What the fuck? What’s wrong?” I turned back and looked at him, shook my head and tried to fight back tears, but they came, and I shook and cried like a baby. He grabbed me into a hug and told me it was alright, that he knew what I was crying about. “He was my best friend,” I choked up. He told me this is why he never tried to get to know Sam or me or any of his juniors, because he lost his best friend on an earlier deployment and more friends later, and it hurt him so bad he didn’t want to risk losing anyone close anymore. But he opened up to me more after that, and we became friends.
A couple of months later we got intelligence on a house in which a local sniper was said to be living, in the area where Sam was killed, so our platoon was given the mission. The raid went flawlessly, though I was still stuck behind the wheel. We found lots of artillery shells and other IED-making equipment, a stock of RPGs and machine guns, and three sniper rifles. One guy was home, but we weren’t sure if he was the sniper or the sniper’s brother. We took him in along with all of the weapons, and later that night two of Sam’s close friends and I went to the base detention center to get a look at him. He was sitting on a military cot, behind a fence, his hands bound behind his back, blacked-out goggles over his eyes and a blanket draped over his shoulders. He was older, heavyset, and had thinning hair. Of course I felt some animosity, but looking at him, I couldn’t get furious — we were the ones who invaded his country, after all. After he left our small detention center, he’d soon be shuffled through a number of others and then probably to a corrupt Iraqi court. Whether he was the sniper or his brother never seemed certain, though I heard a couple rumors that went both ways in the following months.
Back in the same city, just over a year later, on my second deployment, I was sitting in my bed one day, reading a field manual about Iraqi sniper tactics. I found it all interesting, but one part gave me a sudden pause. It said that Iraqi snipers are usually military-trained, and they will often stash their weapon, wash their hands of gunpowder residue, change clothes if necessary, then get as close as possible to their target to see what damage they caused. My mind raced back to that older Iraqi with his lawn chair, then I thought of the guy we detained two months later, and I thought they were almost certainly the same person. They looked so much alike. My mind spun, thinking that I briefly had my rifle pointed at the sniper who had just killed my best friend. Looking back, I still wouldn’t have shot him even if I knew, because at that point he was unarmed, but I would have tried to get another Marine to go with me and detain him. Even at the time, I should have known enough to see he was suspicious, likely on his own reconnaissance mission, but we were focused on bringing our friend home and just wanted him to go away.
By the end of my first deployment, I saw more terrible things, lost a couple more friends and came a lot closer to death myself, but after Sam I never again prayed to die or worried about how my experiences seem in comparison to anyone else’s. I know a lot of people have experienced a lot more than me, but it doesn’t make me feel inferior anymore. I’m still haunted by the thought that I might have killed Sam by angering God. I still often hear Sam’s voice talking to me, maybe from Heaven, and sometimes I’ll carry on long conversations with him or just my memory of his voice. He tells me not to worry about it. I don’t remember his voice ever telling me that I didn’t kill him, just not to worry about it and he’ll be looking out for me now along with everyone else he loved.
Sam, the last thing you asked me on your daughter’s first birthday, December 18, 2005, was if I wanted to watch Star Wars with you, and now on December 18, 2015, when Episode Seven debuts, I’m going to say yes — God willing. I know you’ll be there with me when I see it because I know you’ve been living through me and all of your loved ones ever since Samantha turned one.
Vince Perritano is a former Marine Corps infantryman. He currently lives in Istanbul where he teaches English. He is the author of After We’re Free, a novel he wrote in Ramadi, Iraq during his second tour there in 2007 and published on his last day of active duty in 2008.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Reece Lodder